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HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE EXAMINES LIBERIA’S INITIAL REPORT

10 July 2018

The Human Rights Committee this morning concluded the review of the initial report of Liberia on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the country. 

Presenting the report, Juah Nancy Cassell, Deputy Minister for Administration and Public Safety at the Ministry of Justice of Liberia, reminded that 2017 had marked a significant milestone for Liberia as a post-conflict country.  First, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) had successfully concluded its 14-year-old mandate, restoring the rule of law and re-establishing a constitutional democratic order.  Second, there was a smooth constitutional transfer of authority from the administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to President George Manneh Weah.  Although very young, the new Government was committed to review and make necessary reforms, namely those relating to the citizenship and land ownership laws.  Additionally, the Government had made progress in protecting freedom of speech and expression, and it was working to address rampant abuses against women and children in the aftermath of the civil war. 

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts expressed concerns about the discrepancies between customary and statutory law, namely that under customary law the age of marriage was 16, and that polygamy was permissible.  They also inquired about multiple discrimination against persons with albinism, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, the prevalence of sexual violence against women and girls, domestic violence against women, criminalization of abortion, accountability for conflict-related crimes, counter-terrorism legislation, gender equality in the political process, and the nationality law.  Committee Experts also asked about the difference between “customary marriage” and “statutory marriage,” and about witchcraft and ritual killings, female genital mutilation, the status of the death penalty, use of force by the police, forced and child labour, sexual slavery, prison overcrowding and pre-trial detention, corruption in the judiciary, corporal punishment, birth registration, freedom of expression and assembly, refugees, and the status of customary lands.

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Cassell noted that Liberia faced several challenges in honouring its international human rights obligations.  Those mostly pertained to the ratification of international human rights instruments when they were in conflict with traditional laws and norms. 

On his part, Mauro Politi, Committee Vice-Chairperson, appreciated the fact that the Government of Liberia recognized challenges in fulfilling its obligations under the Covenant.  Those challenges included past human rights violations, implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to fight impunity and to ensure the right to justice, blanket amnesty, female genital mutilation, difficulties in changing cultural traditions, prison overcrowding, and voluntary termination of pregnancy. 

The delegation of Liberia consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Permanent Mission of Liberia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.


The Committee will next meet in public this afternoon at 3 p.m., to consider the fourth periodic report of Lithuania (CCPR/C/LTU/4).


Report

The Committee has before it the initial report of Liberia (CCPR/C/LBR/1).

Presentation of the Report

JUAH NANCY CASSELL, Deputy Minister for Administration and Public Safety at the Ministry of Justice of Liberia, reminded that 2017 had marked a significant milestone for Liberia as a post-conflict country.  First, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) had ended its mandate, after 14 years as a successful international peacekeeping mission, which had restored the rule of law and had re-established a constitutional democratic order.  Second, there was a smooth constitutional transfer of authority from the administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to President George Manneh Weah.  Since the end of the civil war in 1990, President Weah’s administration was the first to enjoy and exercise full sovereign security and constitutional authority void of any form of foreign military intervention.  Although it was a very young government, it was committed to review and make necessary reforms, namely those relating to the citizenship and land ownership laws.  Additionally, the Government had made progress in protecting freedom of speech and expression.  On 31 May 2018, President Weah had submitted to the national legislature a bill to repeal some sections of the Penal Code in an effort to decriminalize free speech and create a free media environment. 

The Government of Liberia maintained a perfect record of not having any political prisoners, and it was determined to protect the rights of women, children and vulnerable groups.  In the face of great challenges that the authorities administering correctional facilities had to deal with, the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation strove to conform minimum human rights standards with meagre resources.  The Government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local human rights groups, international non-governmental organizations, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, diplomatic personnel and the media.  In 2016, Liberia had seen the introduction of new immigration acts, namely the establishment of a civilian complaints review board to improve accountability and democratic oversight. 

The Government had drafted a National Human Rights Action Plan in line with the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and incorporating the recommendations made during the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review.  The Ministry of Justice also ran a sexual and gender-based violence unit to address rampant abuses against women and children in the aftermath of the civil war.  The Ministry of Justice also had a specialized programme on child justice to divert children in conflict with the law from the formal criminal justice system, and it had taken measures to fight child trafficking.  Liberia remained committed to the promotion and protection of the human rights of all its citizens, including the fight against all harmful traditional and cultural practices.  The fight against female genital mutilation required a combination of both criminal sanctions and sustained public education, Ms. Cassell concluded. 

Questions by Committee Experts

Beginning the dialogue with questions about Liberia’s constitutional framework, Experts expressed concerns about the discrepancies between customary and statutory law, namely that under customary law the age of marriage was 16, and polygamy was permissible. 

Did the State party intend to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Covenant

Turning to the independent national commission for human rights, Experts inquired about how it worked in practice.  What was the membership of the commission?  Why was there no chairperson?  There were reports that the commission was underfunded by the Government.  How were the autonomy and independence of the commission ensured in such conditions?  What measures had the State party taken to ensure that it operated in full compliance with the Paris Principles? 

There was information that persons with albinism faced multiple forms of discrimination.  What was the access to medical, social and education facilities for persons and children with HIV/AIDS, and for Ebola survivors?  The country had only one registered psychiatrist, even though one in five Liberians suffered from a mild to moderate mental disorder.  What was the situation of elderly persons?  What measures had the State party undertaken to combat discrimination against foreign nationals

Experts remained concerned about the prevalence of sexual violence against women and girls.  Rape was the second most commonly reported serious crime in Liberia.  However, few rape cases were actually prosecuted.  The application and effectiveness of the Rape Law of 2005 remained unclear.  What was the number of complaints of rape and other acts of sexual violence received in the past five years, investigations effectively carried out, and prosecutions and convictions secured?  Several cultural and institutional factors had been identified as the cause of a wide disparity between reported and prosecuted rape cases, such as shame, poor and corrupt investigation and prosecution of crimes, and the hesitancy of survivors to view themselves as victims. 

On domestic violence against women, Experts pointed out the failure of the police to respond effectively to domestic violence and to protect victims and hold perpetrators responsible.  Experts asked the delegation to explain the delay in the enactment of the Domestic Violence Bill.  What was the scope of the definition of domestic violence in the pending law?  What training had been provided to law enforcement officials, and healthcare and judicial personnel on domestic violence?  Was there any policy of practice in place to provide victims of domestic violence with a comprehensive civil order for protection? 

As for voluntary termination of pregnancy, Experts inquired about the rate of maternal mortality resulting from unsafe abortions and measures to tackle that phenomenon.  What was the number of official abortions and the estimated number of clandestine abortions?  Experts also asked the delegation to elaborate on the requirement that two physicians had to authorize voluntary termination of pregnancy.  What efforts had the State party taken to combat the stigmatization of abortion, and to ensure that men, women, boys and girls in all regions of the country had access to contraceptives and sexual and reproductive health education and services? 

Turning to accountability for conflict-related crimes, an Expert inquired about the update on the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and about the 2011 decision of the Constitutional Court on the unconstitutionality of the 30-year ban from holding public office.  Had there been any subsequent developments regarding the list of banned individuals?  How did the State party deal with the problem of impunity for serious human rights violations during the 14-year old civil war?  Did the new Government plan to re-examine the issue?    

What was the role of the Palava Hut process?  What progress had been achieved in the construction of memorial sites at mass grave locations?  What was the status of reparations for victims?

Regarding the state of emergency declared in August 2014 and lifted in November 2014, what Covenant rights had been suspended during that time?  How did provisions on the state of emergency comply with article 4 of the Covenant?  What measures had been taken to document all violations of human rights related to the emergency?  What was the number of prosecutions and convictions secured?  Had any reparations been paid out? 

On counter-terrorism measures, Experts raised the issue of the definition under the Penal Code which was very broad and did not contain the political context found in most international definitions.  The fact that terrorism and hijacking were a capital offence underscored the need to further tighten the definition.  Had there been any prosecutions for terrorism since the law had been passed in 2008?  Was the case of Henry Costa dealt with as a case of terrorism? 

Experts noted that Liberia had been working hard to ensure gender equality in the political process, even though the situation on the ground was not optimal.  Why had the affirmative action bill aimed at increasing female representation in the national legislature not passed?  What had been done to facilitate greater access to justice by rural women who had trouble accessing formal justice systems because of barriers related to cost, literacy, travel and customary norms? 

With respect to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Experts reminded that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons were stigmatized, harassed and attacked in Liberia.  While understanding the prudent position of the Government vis-à-vis that issue due to deep-rooted social beliefs, Experts noted that the State had a very important role in changing people’s beliefs and in explaining that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues were not a problem of social deviance. 

Experts expressed concern about the severity of the Penal Code towards consensual same-sex relations, and the inability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons to obtain legal status.  What measures had Liberia taken to educate and raise awareness among police officers, and to deal with harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity?  What measures would the authorities take to prosecute violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons? 

According to the current law, only the father could pass on Liberian nationality to children born abroad.  That situation might be due to the gap between the customary and written law.  What did the Government intend to do to address gender inequality and exploitation of women?  What was the difference between “customary marriage” and “statutory marriage,” and what measures had the State party taken to ensure the equal rights of women in all marriages in law and in practice? 

Turning to witchcraft and ritual killings, Expert underlined their disproportionate impact on women.  Some 58 per cent of women underwent female genital mutilation, and especially poor women were affected.  Liberia was one of three African countries that had not criminalized female genital mutilation. 

Replies by the Delegation

JUAH NANCY CASSELL, Deputy Minister for Administration and Public Safety at the Ministry of Justice of Liberia, explained that Liberia had focused on peace-building and national reconciliation since the start of the truth and reconciliation process.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had constructed the first memorial sites to honour the victims of the civil war.  It had prepared two major reports on the Palava Hut process which had been submitted to the former President.  Since the new Government had been set up, the President had taken time to better address the needs and concerns of people.    

Turning to the questions about customary and statutory marriages, the delegation explained that the Constitution guaranteed equal rights to women and men in line with the Covenant.  If there was any conflict between national laws and the Covenant, national laws had to be harmonized with the Covenant.  The Law Reform Commission would harmonize the regulations relating to customary and statutory marriages. 

Indeed, Liberia had not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Covenant, and the Ministry of Justice and the Independent National Human Rights Commission continued to receive complaints of persons who believed their rights had been violated.  There was no chairperson of the Independent National Human Rights Commission because the previous holder had retired.  The delegation hoped that the new administration would soon appoint a new chairperson.  The appointment process went through a thorough vetting process.  The Government faced enormous challenges in terms of resources, which explained the lack of funding for the Independent National Human Rights Commission.

There had indeed been complaints of mistreatment of persons with albinism and of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons by police officers.  Accordingly, these police officers had received relevant training on how to treat such populations.  The authorities had also provided more education about Ebola to healthcare personnel.  The Government had undertaken measures to promote the employment and education of persons with albinism. 

Cultural and religious beliefs were deeply rooted in the Liberian society, which was why consensual same-sex relations were criminalized.  The Ministry of Justice was aware of the allegations of police mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.  There had not been any prosecution of persons engaging in consensual same-sex relations.  The Government acknowledged that more education was necessary on the issue. 

The delegation explained that the definition of terrorism did not take into account political, social or religious reasons for which terrorist acts were carried out.  It focused on the act to intentionally cause harm.  The death penalty was indeed handed down for terrorist acts, but it was not frequently applied.  There had not been any terrorist cases going to a full trial.  There had been no prosecution in the case of Henry Costa as charges against him were dropped.

Turning to the issue of the low prosecution of sexual violence against women and rape, the delegation clarified that the authorities had conducted awareness raising campaigns against compromise settlements.  In addition, the recording of court proceedings had to be modernized in order to improve prosecution.  

As the rate of abortion was alarming, the authorities tried to provide education about contraceptives.  Due to funding constraints, the Government sought the support of international partners. 

The Affirmative Action Bill aimed at increasing the number of women in the political process was still being debated in the National Assembly. 

According to the Constitution, any child of a Liberian parent was a Liberian at birth, even though the Alien and Nationality Law limited that provision.  The legislature was currently considering an amendment to allow both mothers and fathers to transmit their nationality to their children.  

Health traditional practices were promoted in Liberia, whereas those traditional practices that required the removal of bodily parts to purge from evil spirits were criminalized.  Female genital mutilation was a serious challenge for the authorities because it was deeply rooted.  The President had submitted an act on domestic violence, which also referred to female genital mutilation.  The act had not been passed because it was argued that female genital mutilation should be classified as violence against women and not as domestic violence. 

Follow-up Questions by Experts

Experts inquired about the controversial appointments of chairpersons of the Independent Human Rights Commission by the President.  They reiterated questions about the situation of the elderly, persons with mental disorders, and discrimination against foreign nationals.

With respect to the protests of 20 April 2014, Experts inquired about whether the disciplinary measures handed down to the five soldiers who had shot protestors were commensurate with the severity of the conduct in question.

On the definition of terrorism, Experts suggested that it be revised in order to separate ordinary crimes from terrorism crimes.

Was it true that there were financial prerequisites for registering as candidates at elections?  Could that condition not adversely affect women?  Had special constituencies for women been filled? 

The maternal mortality resulting from unsafe abortions stood at 31 per cent.  In light of that, had the State party considered increasing access to abortion, including through decriminalization?

Replies by the Delegation

National laws provided for equal treatment of all persons, including for the elderly, persons with mental disorders, and foreign nationals.  It was a cultural belief that elderly persons were given preference in all areas of life.  As Liberia was about to submit its first report on the implementation on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Government had paid more attention to their issues.  

The Law Reform Commission would reconsider the definition of terrorism.  There was no law that limited the participation of women in the political process.  Political parties were bound by law to secure at least 30 per cent of female participation.  Out of five Supreme Court justices, two were women.

The law defined conditions under which abortion could be performed, for example, in the case of rape.  Women needed to be better educated about their rights under the law.

Second Round of Questions by Experts

Experts inquired about the status of the death penalty in the law.  Turning to the use of force by the police, they reminded that the use of force during arrest was one of the most reported offences, and that the proportionality of force should not be subjectively determined by police officers.  Had new standards on the use of force been adopted?            

An Expert inquired about the implementation of the five-year zero-tolerance action plan to combat trafficking in persons, as well as about actions taken to deal with forced and child labour, particularly involving women and children working as street vendors, domestic servants or beggars and in the rubber, rock quarry, and gold and diamond mining sectors.  The legal framework to deal with trafficking in persons was in place, but the problem was in its implementation. 

Sexual slavery was a threat not only to Liberian nationals, but to foreign nationals as well.  What measures was the Government taking to tackle forced labour, and in particular child labour?  What measures did the Government plan to take to speed up the rehabilitation of victims?

Turning to prison overcrowding, Experts reminded that the situation in Liberian prisons was a matter of great concern.  The sanitary and medical conditions, including the provision of food, were incompatible with the minimum United Nations standards, incorporated in the Mandela rules.  Pre-trial detention was excessively long, and prisoners sometimes spent more time in pre-trial detention than serving the actual prison sentence.  Did the Government intend to make legal reforms of the Penal Code and to propose alternative sentences for some offences in order to reduce prison overcrowding?  The Government could also think of addressing corruption among judges and of budgetary reforms.

What progress had been made to ban all corporal punishment of children in all settings?  What was the birth registration rate?

On due process and fair trial, Experts reminded of the need to have speedy trials and to avoid lengthy pre-trial detention.  Were there initiatives to look at the revised bail system?  The Liberian National Bar Association provided some legal aid, but it was very limited.  Some systematic issues could be addressed, such as the high registration fee for people who wanted to practice law, which would raise the number of lawyers.

As for freedom of expression, Experts pointed to a number of concerns, such as the closure of media outlets on the basis of hate speech against the Government.  Was that concept still in use?  Other concerns were the use of libel and defamation, denial of registration to media outlets, and the establishment of an independent media regulator. 

With respect to the independence of the judiciary, an Expert inquired about the meaning of “good behaviour,” noting that such a broad provision was incompatible with judicial independence vis-à-vis political branches.  Was the State party aware of the problem of corruption in the judicial system?  What was the legal framework to address corruption and what were the plans to improve its effectiveness?  What was the criteria that governed the promotion and assignment of judges? 

As for refugees, what was the legal framework governing the principle of non-refoulement?  What was the state of play of the proposed amendments to the 1993 Refugee Act, which were meant to include provisions on addressing the cases of stateless persons?  Experts noted the significant number of refugees and asylum seekers from Côte d’Ivoire.  What was the process of refoulement to Côte d’Ivoire?  How frequently had the State party practiced forced removals?  Were refugees and asylum seekers barred from exercising any economic activities?

Turning to the status of customary lands, Experts asked whether the Land Rights Act had finally been passed.  What changes did it bring to the ability to claim title over customary land?  Could the State party respond to civil society’s concerns that long-term leases had been meted out by the Government on customary land without adequate consultation with local communities?  Did it plan to compensate the affected communities? 

Experts voiced another concern in relation to the Women’s Land Rights Task Force, namely that women were especially disadvantaged by development concessions, which limited their access to firewood, roads and water resources. 
 
On participation in public affairs and freedom of assembly, Experts asked about measures taken to remove all barriers to citizens’ ability to vote, namely enfranchisement of citizens turning 18, those in pre-trial detention, and persons with disabilities.  What were the measures to ensure respect for freedom of assembly for all citizens and political parties? 

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation clarified that there had been no executions since 2005, and that the Law Reform Commission was working to harmonize legal provisions on the death penalty.  Turning to the use of force by the police, the delegation explained that relevant regulations were implemented during the 2017 elections.  The regulations stipulated that any force used should be proportional to the danger faced by police officers. 

Responding to Experts’ questions about the implementation of the five-year zero-tolerance action plan to combat trafficking in persons, the Government had been involved in a lot of awareness raising and training, and it had provided rehabilitation services to victims.  In addition, training had been provided to judges and prosecutors.

The Anti-Corruption Commission was in charge of investigating complaints of corruption.  Some cases involved Government officials and State-owned companies.  Contrary to the claim that the Government was doing little to combat corruption, legal proceedings were ongoing, but they took time.  The delegation said that it looked forward to Liberian courts being able to deliver speedy trials.

As for forced and child labour, particularly involving women and children working as street vendors, domestic servants or beggars and in the rubber, rock quarry, and gold and diamond mining sectors, the delegation noted that many challenges remained.  Most children working in the streets were breadwinners and had to earn for their families’ survival.  The Government was working with non-governmental organizations to raise awareness about child labour among parents.  The Government had also taken action to combat sexual slavery of women from foreign countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia.  But many measures lacked efficiency due to limited resources.

The delegation clarified that the prison population cited by a Committee Expert for one of the prisons in Liberia was, in fact, the total prison population in the whole country.  The authorities had already implemented alternative sentences for certain types of offences in order to reduce prison overcrowding.  The current law required that there had be conviction before probation or community service.  A joint task force of the Ministry of Justice was reviewing prisoners’ cases to address lengthy pre-trial detention, and the backlog of cases.

The Liberian National Bar Association was reviewing the complaint that the registration fee for people who wanted to practice law was too high, leading to a shortage of lawyers.  The judiciary had financial autonomy and was, thus, independent.  As for the provision on “good behaviour,” the delegation stated that no judges had been removed.  The executive branch did not decide on the removal of judges.  The law provided for due process. 

Liberia had introduced a decentralized and computerized birth registration system, which encompassed healthcare facilities and which was free of charge for newborns.  The Government was working with civil society to abolish corporal punishment in all settings.  However, communities held on to their traditional view that children would become spoiled. 

Collective bargaining agreements between the private sector and the Government stipulated that parents could not send their children to work.  Labour inspectors were also tasked to provide employers with relevant training on child labour

The Land Authority Act had been passed by the legislature and the Land Authority had been set up.  As for the Land Rights Act, it was still being debated in the legislature.  Land tenure and administration was a huge issue for the country.  Granting concession rights had been fraught with difficulties in the past due to disagreements with local communities.  The Land Rights Act aimed to divide land in four categories and to recognize customary land titles.  According to the Constitution, all minerals and natural resources belonged to the Republic of Liberia, but the Land Rights Act would allow local communities to benefit from concession rights. 

Article 97 of the Constitution provided for blanket amnesty for previous regimes in Liberia.  The Law Reform Commission was now considering removing that provision in order to discourage impunity.

As for the refugees sent outside Liberia, the authorities had not removed them forcibly.  They were persons who had been accused of having committed crimes in their home countries.  The Government was mindful of its international obligations vis-à-vis non-refoulement.  The authorities were not aware of any cases of refugees being denied the right to engage in an economic activity.  However, certain economic activities were only open to Liberian nationals, as per the law.

On participation in public affairs and freedom of assembly, the delegation explained that the Government would study how to allow persons turning 18 to vote in elections.  Persons with disabilities were assisted in order to exercise their right to vote, whereas a mechanism would be introduced to allow those in pre-trial detention to vote. 

Follow-up Questions by Experts

Experts asked about the attempt to impeach three justices of the Supreme Court in 2017, and the resulting implications for the independence of the judiciary.  What economic activities were reserved only for Liberian nationals?  What was the relationship between the prosecution and the police?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that the Constitution provided for the impeachment of justices under very limited circumstances.  Impeachment was not taken lightly and it was not easy to do.  The Senate had to approve it.  The attempt to impeach the three justices of the Supreme Court was not successful because it would have jeopardized the entire judicial system. 

As for the relationship between the prosecution and the police, the delegation clarified that the police took legal advice from the prosecution when conducting investigations of crimes.

Many people from Ghana and Sierra Leone came to Liberia to work in the mining sector, which was an economic activity that required relevant licenses.    

Concluding Remarks

JUAH NANCY CASSELL, Deputy Minister for Administration and Public Safety at the Ministry of Justice of Liberia, noted that Liberia faced several challenges in honouring its international human rights obligations.  Those mostly pertained to the ratification of international human rights instruments when they were in conflict with traditional laws and norms.  The new Government of Liberia also faced several constraints with respect to resources, which was why it called for international support.  Ms. Cassell assured that the Government would do its best to protect the rights of everyone, not only Liberians.
 
MAURO POLITI, Committee Vice-Chairperson, appreciated the fact that the Government of Liberia recognized challenges in fulfilling its obligations under the Covenant.  Mr. Politi reminded that some of those challenges included past human rights violations, implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the need to fight impunity and to ensure the right to justice, blanket amnesty, female genital mutilation, difficulties in changing cultural traditions, prison overcrowding, and voluntary termination of pregnancy.  Mr. Politi encouraged the Government of Liberia to achieve substantial progress in those areas.


For use of the information media; not an official record 

CCPR/18/18E